'Metal Queen' Aaron Takes Detour
Canadian Rocker Records A Jazz Album On Her Own Label
BY LARRY LeBLANC
TORONTO - If Britney Spears did a guest stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it wouldn't be any more surprising than the latest album by Canada's long time "Metal Queen," singer Lee Aaron.
This one-time hard rock sex kitten - dubbed the "Metal Queen" following her 1984 sophomore album of the same name on Attic Records-has recorded and co-produced a soulful set consisting of fairly obscure jazz songs. Titled "Slick Chick," the album was independently released April 4 in Canada by Aaron's own Barking Dog Music label, which is distributed nationally by Distribution Fusion III.
In the '80s, Aaron was enormously popular in Canada and attracted a sizeable following in Europe, especially in Britain and Germany. Lionized by fistpounding metal-head supporters, she was vilified by detractors who derided her for capitalizing on her sexuality with such erotic fare as "Whatcha Do To My Body," "Some Girls Do," "Tough Girls Don't Cry," and "Sex With Love." She was voted the "Sex Symbol of the Year" by U.K. publications Kerrang! and Sounds in 1984 and recorded with such head-banging bands as the Scorpions, Talon, Helix, and Kick Axe. "Picture being Britney Spears' age doing 'Metal Queen,'" says Aaron, laughing. Now 38 and living in the Vancouver suburb of Kitsilano, she will be squiring her 7-year-old stepdaughter to Spears' August show in Vancouver.
"When I came out with that album, it was groundbreaking for a woman to be doing [sexy] music."
It was Ralph Alfonso, a graphic designer at Vancouver-based Artwerks - he designed the cover of "Slick Chick" - who approached Distribution Fusion III's president, Jim West, earlier this year to inquire if his company would distribute Aaron's album. West was intrigued by the suggestion and impressed when he heard the album. "It's a fun record," says West, who also heads jazz label Justin Time Records, which introduced Canadian jazz superstar Diana Krall.
"It's down and dirty, and it swings."
"Lee has a great blues-flavored voice," says Alfonso. "When she performs, some rock mannerisms surface, but that's cool. It's still Lee Aaron no matter what she does."
Aaron has also contributed vocals to Alfonso's upcoming album, "This Is For The Night People," which is being released June 20 by his own Bongo Beat Records.
Aaron acknowledges that there are those who are sceptical of her jazz direction. She says, "Their first reaction is, 'You've got to be joking.' But I think as an artist you don't have to be exclusive to one idiom if you go into another with honesty and treat it with respect."
The album, recorded at Quantum Sound and Aaron's own studio, includes three tracks - "Slick Chick," "Evil Gal Blues," and "TV Is The Thing This Year" - that she originally heard done by late American Jazz singer Dinah Washington. Also featured are
"In The Dark," Irving Berlin's "He Ain't Got Rhyhtm," "Why Don't You Do Right?," and sparkling renditions of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' "Twisted" and "Doodlin'."
Two tracks, "I'd Love To" and "Chaser For The Blues," were co-written by Aaron and the album's co-producer Jane Milliken, who also plays piano on the recording. The album
features Aaron's husband, Don Short, playing drums with the backing band, the Swingin' Barflies. The two first played together in the
short-lived mid '90s group 2preciious.
"I first listned to jazz while in high school working on theater productions," recalls Aaron. "My teachers would send me home
with albums. When I was 20, I was in a nightclub in Europe and heard Nina Simone's album 'Nina Simone Sings The Blues' [RCA 1967], and I had to get it. I'm a big fan. Not only of her voice but her piano playing."
As long as a decade ago, Aaron had decided to break away from the "Metal Queen" identity. First, she recorded more melodic
and pop repertoire, then she sought more career control. Disconsolate about not having U.S. distribution of her recordings, she parted ways with
Toronto-based Attic, her label from 1984 to 1991.
Following the failure of her 1994 album "Emotional Rain," released on her own Hipchic Music label, she parted with longtime songwriting collaborator/guitarist John Albani
and moved from Toronto to Vancouver, where she also took over her own management. There, she hooked up with members of alternative
rock act Sons Of Freedom to create 2preciious. The band broke up shortly after the 1996 independent release of its self-titled debut album.
During a year's layoff from music, Aaron studied acting before returning in a duo with keyboardist Dennis Ziebart. They performed covers
in local supper clubs. Lee Aaron the jazz singer emerged at a showcase at the Vancouver nightclub the Purple Onion Cabaret in September
1997. Later after a six-month weekly residency there, she began playing jazz dates around town.
"A lot of industry people and fans came out for the showcase, but some old fans left after only three songs,"
recalls Aaron. "I then began playing [jazz] in a smoky gay bar downtown, and a straight and gay audience would come out.
From that point on, people began asking me to play their clubs."
Aaron - born Karen Lynn Greening - azquried her stage name after joining a band called Lee Aaron at 15. In 1982, she recorded the album "The
Lee Aaron Project" for Toronto-based Freedom Records, with local band Santers backing her. In 1984, she signed with Attic and released
Alfonso first met Aaron at that time; he was head of promotion at Attic from 1979 to 1985. "She came to the label with the album,"
he recalls. "I can remember interviewing her to write her first bio. Of all the artists I've worked with, she was the hardest-working."
Aaron's two most successful albums during the Attic years were "Bodyrock" (1989) - which, boosted by its singels "Whatcha Do To My Body" and
"Hands On," achieved double-platinum status in Canada (200,000 units) - and the platinum "Some Girls Do," featuring the hit "Sex With Love."
"During the '80s, Lee certainly was one of Canada's top-selling rock acts," says Alexander Mair, president of Attic Records Inc.
and VP of Song Corp. "However, her catalog sales on Attic have slowed down now that she's not performing so much as the 'Metal Queen.'"
Aaron herself came to realize she'd never completely exorcise her hard rock past and still tours billed as the "Metal Queen" for certain dates.
During her jazz gigs, she often performs jazz-styled versions of her hits "Whatcha Do To My Body," "Only Human," and "Barely Holdin' On."
"Most of the rock shows I do are in secondary markets where people still care about classic rock," Aaron says.
"Performing rock is also more lucrative than jazz - although I make a nice living doing jazz and it enables me to stay local,
which is important when I have a stepdaughter. Travelling for nine months of the year performing rock is not something I want to do today."
© Billboard Magazine 2000.